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FESTIVAL ' 90 : A Local Hero Takes Center Stage : Jazzman John Carter Gets Rare Chance to Perform Series of Song Cycles

September 05, 1990|DON SNOWDEN

One of the most poignant moments of the Los Angeles Festival may come when John Carter takes the stage at the Japan America Theatre Thursday night.

Under any circumstances, the renowned jazz clarinetist would savor the rare opportunity to perform with his octet in his hometown. It would be only the third time--the first in a prestigious, high-visibility setting--that Carter would present a portion of his acclaimed five-album "Roots and Folklore" series of song cycles locally.

But those considerations paled when a persistent cough compelled Carter, 60, to check into a hospital for tests in February. The diagnosis: a non-malignant growth on his chest wall that had grown so massive, it required the removal of his left lung.

The Japan America Theatre concert will be Carter's first public performance since the operation.

"The doctor said the growth had been there for years and deactivated the lung, but it hadn't bothered me at all," said Carter, growing pensive during an interview at the L.A. Wind College. "He said that whatever I was doing before (musically), I'd be able to do again because I've been playing off one lung for a long time."

An ardent devotee of aikido martial art, Carter had lost some of his physical robustness but appeared to be in good shape. He expects a full recovery and has not cut back on writing, having recently completed a quintet piece and a commission for the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

The greatest challenge with his illness had been mental, he said.

"The thing that has thrown me is the mystery: How can something like this be going on and I did not know it?" he asked. "The doctor said evidently I was in such fine shape that as the growth grew, my body made up for it.

"I would say to anybody: Try to make the most out of your life every single day, because you just have no idea what is happening."

Carter's performance is one of a series of concerts that began Monday night with a salute to hometown jazz heroes. While Buddy Collette and Red Callendar, Carter and Vinny Golia make their homes here, they perform most frequently for European audiences. The festival's coup is Friday's reunion of Ornette Coleman's original quartet, which revolutionized jazz in the late '50s.

Carter plans to perform the entire "Castles of Ghana" song cycle for his appearance. The West Coast edition of his octet includes Bobby Bradford (cornet), Oscar Brashear (trumpet), Charles Owens (soprano saxophone and flute), Thurman Green (trombone), Vinny Golia (bass clarinet), Roberto Miranda (bass) and William Jeffrey (drums).

But only "Dauwhe," the 1982 album for Italy's Black Saint label that kicked off the "Roots and Folklore" series, was recorded with Los Angeles musicians. The final four albums--"Castles of Ghana" (1986), "Dance of the Love Ghosts" (1987), "Fields" (1988) and "Shadows on the Wall" (1989)--were performed by a predominantly New York-based group and released on Gramavision.

"There's a distinct difference in the way that Los Angeles and New York musicians approach and interpret the music, the freedoms that are taken and the freedoms that are not," Carter said. "Generally, the New York group is a little looser and the L.A. group sticks closer to the printed page so you get a tighter ensemble sound."

Carter got the idea for the project in 1974 after his son returned from a trip to West Africa and mentioned castles in Ghana that had been used as holding pens for Africans waiting to be transported to the Americas as slaves.

"My first thought was to capture the idea of 'Castles of Ghana' in a (single) piece," Carter said. "After delving into the project, I finally settled on five suites, each one with five to eight pieces in it.

"A (lot) needs to be done to dismiss ideas that had been presented to us about what the African brought to this country. The best way I could do that was through my music. Each album has some roots and folklore (written) on the back."

The ambitious sweep of the music ranges from Carter's depictions of spiritual roots in Africa through the Atlantic crossing on the slave ships to survival in America.

In the '30s, Carter first got involved with music, influenced by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and the music of the Baptist Church.

"When I was little, my mother and father were in their 20s going to dances," he said. "They had all the records, and I remember rent parties. I was saturated with this music. I would stay up as long as I could stay awake."

Carter's first instrument was clarinet, but he was fluent on an array of woodwind instruments by the time he completed his masters degree in music education at the University of Colorado in 1956. He moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1961 and planned to become a studio musician but instead taught music in the Los Angeles school system.

He hooked up with his partner, cornet player Bobby Bradford, in 1964. Carter released a few albums for Flying Dutchman and his own Ibedon label through the '70s.

In the early '80s, he opted for a higher profile that brought him international recognition as a clarinetist.

"As a player and sometimes as a writer, I tend toward the highs and lows," Carter said. "I hear them well, which is why I play clarinet, I guess. Sometimes in those two registers, I'll often leave out the middle except to get to where I want to go."

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